Best Dog Food For Diabetic Dogs

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Receiving a diagnosis that your dog is diabetic can feel overwhelming for many dog lovers. While diabetes is not curable, it is treatable. With proper diagnosis and treatment, diabetic dogs can have lifespans similar to those of non-diabetic dogs. The time of greatest risk is during the first six months of treatment, when insulin therapy is introduced and the dog’s glucose levels are being regulated. Diabetic dogs do have a higher risk of death from concurrent diseases such as kidney disease, liver and/or pancreatic disorders, or infections. However, once a diabetic dog’s condition becomes stabilized, there is no reason why the dog cannot live a long, healthy and happy life while eating a diabetic dog food.

(For a full discussion of diabetes in dogs, complications, and related health disorders, we recommend reading “Managing Diabetes in Dogs,” by CJ Puotinen and Mary Straus [updated February 19, 2016]. We also recommend this glossary with terms associated with diabetes mellitus.)

Background for diabetes mellitus in dogs

Diabetes is common in dogs and it’s increasing. It’s currently estimated to affect 1 in 160 dogs. (Another source estimates 1 in 200 dogs.)

The medical term for diabetes is diabetes mellitus . It is caused by either a decreased production of insulin or decreased functioning of the insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps glucose move from the blood stream into the cells of the body where it can be used for energy. There are several different types of diabetes. In Type 1, the pancreas is unable to produce insulin (or produce enough insulin). Type 2 is often linked to diet and obesity. Type 2 is the form that is most common in humans. This is also the form most often seen in cats. The third kind of diabetes is gestational diabetes and it can occur during pregnancy.

While humans and cats often suffer from Type 2 diabetes, dogs are prone to Type 1 diabetes. Dogs can also develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. In some cases, a Type 1 diagnosis in dogs is complicated by other diseases such as Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, liver disease, urinary tract infections, and other illnesses. These other health problems can complicate treatment and affect the diet your dog requires.

Risk factors for diabetes in dogs

Some dogs are more at risk for diabetes than others. Predisposing factors include:

  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Long-term use of prednisone and other steroid drugs
  • A study published in the Veterinary Journal in 2003 examined diabetes rates in thousands of American dogs and found that overall, mixed-breed dogs were more prone to diabetes than purebreds. Among purebreds, Samoyeds, Australian Terriers, Miniature Schnauzers, Pugs, Keeshonds, Pulik, Cairn Terriers, Miniature Pinschers, Spitz, Fox Terriers, Bichon Frise, Siberian Huskies, Miniature and Toy Poodles were most at risk.
  • Middle-aged and older dogs are most at risk.
  • Female dogs and neutered male dogs are more likely than intact males to get diabetes.
  • Obesity can make cells resistant to insulin, but it’s unclear whether it actually causes diabetes in dogs.
  • A diet high in fat may contribute to pancreatitis (inflamed pancreas), a risk factor for diabetes.

Tips for Feeding your Dog a Diabetic Dog Food

Part of managing your diabetic dog’s health, of course, is overseeing his diet. For years the standard recommendation for diabetic dogs was to feed a high fiber/low fat diet. Indeed, you can find many web sites today, some with recommendations from veterinarians, that suggest this kind of diet instead of a specific diabetic dog food. For example, we found this statement on one site: “Most vets recommend a high-fiber, low-fat diet. Fiber slows the entrance of glucose into the bloodstream and helps your dog feel full. Low-fat foods have fewer calories. Together, the diet can help your dog eat less and lose weight.”

The problem, of course, is that Type 1 diabetes does not necessarily develop because of diet or obesity. Dogs don’t have to be overweight to become diabetic. There is no clear link between obesity and diabetes in dogs so feeding a dog this kind of diet may not be appropriate. For humans and cats with Type 2 diabetes, which is related to obesity, a high fiber/low fat diet (or high protein and low carbs) would be great. But that’s not necessarily the case with dogs that have Type 1 diabetes.

For dogs that have Type 1 diabetes, there is no one recommended diet today but there are some ways to manage his diet that will help. It’s important that your dog enjoys his food and eats it. A diabetic dog that skips meals will have problems. Most diabetic dogs without complicating health problems can be successfully managed with an adult maintenance diet. You do not need to buy a prescription diet. If your dog has a concurrent illness, you should feed a diet that is appropriate for that health problem.

When feeding a diabetic dog food it’s very important that you feed your dog the same portions at the same times every day. You are striving to keep his glucose levels steady, so your dog needs to eat the same amounts at the same times. For most dogs, one meal every 12 hours is ideal. Making any change in the carbohydrates your dog eats will affect the amount of insulin he requires so you should not change dog foods on a whim. Depending on your dog, he may need a snack between meals so his glucose levels don’t drop too low.

(For suggested reading, please see “2010 AAHA Diabetes Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats,” Published in 2010 (May/June) Renee Rucinsky, DVM, ABVP (Feline) (Chair) | Audrey Cook, BVM&:S, MRCVS, Diplomate ACVIM-SAIM, Diplomate ECVIM-CA | Steve Haley, DVM | Richard Nelson, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM | Debra L. Zoran, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM | Melanie Poundstone, DVM, ABVP – the section on the dog.)

According to the “2010 AAHA Diabetes Management Guidelines for Dogs and Cats,” the following is the recommended diet therapy for dogs diagnosed with diabetes:

Evaluate and recommend an appropriate diet that will correct obesity, optimize body weight, and minimize postprandial hyperglycemia. Dogs with DM can do well with any diet that is complete and balanced, does not contain simple sugars, is fed at consistent times in consistent amounts, and is palatable for predictable and consistent intake.

Dietary considerations include:

  • The use of diets that contain increased quantities of soluble and insoluble fiber or that are designed for weight maintenance in diabetics or for weight loss in obese diabetics.
    • May improve glycemic control by reducing postprandial hyperglycemia.
    • May help with caloric restriction in obese dogs undergoing weight reduction.
    • In underweight dogs, the priority of dietary therapy is to normalize body weight, increase muscle mass, and stabilize metabolism and insulin requirements. Underweight dogs should be fed a high-quality maintenance diet or a diabetic diet that has mixed fiber and is not designed for weight loss.
  • Modify the diet based on other conditions (e.g., pancreatitis, kidney disease, gastrointestinal disease) and needs of the dog.

The diabetic dog’s food

Depending on whether your diabetic dog is overweight, underweight, or “just right” will determine how much fiber and carbohydrates he needs in his diet.

Your dog may not need a diet that is low in fat unless he also has pancreatitis, Cushing’s disease, raised triglyceride levels, elevated cholesterol, or another special issue. However, most diabetic dogs do have at least one of these concurrent health problems; and pancreatitis is a common predisposing factor in diabetic dogs. This means that a diet that is moderately low in fat is often advisable for diabetic dogs. At least you should avoid feeding dog foods that are high in fat.

For most diabetic dogs, the amount of protein in their diet should be normal for dogs today or increased. When fat is lowered in the diet, protein should be increased to avoid adding too many extra carbohydrates.

Carbs for a diabetic dog

Carbohydrates have the greatest affect on your dog’s post-meal blood sugar levels. Your dog’s insulin dose requirement and the carb contents of his meal are strongly connected, no matter what kind of carbohydrate is in the food. This means that the best way to keep your dog’s insulin requirements stable is by keeping the carbs in his diet steady.

One of the ways you can look at carbohydrates is by checking the glycemic index. The glycemic index measures the effects carbohydrates in food have on blood sugar levels. The index provides an estimate of how much each gram of available carbohydrates (total carb minus fiber) in a food raises blood glucose level after the food is eaten, relative to the consumption of glucose. The glycemic index is easy to find online.

Foods that are rated as “low glycemic” release glucose slowly and steadily. Foods that are rated “high glycemic” release glucose at a faster rate, resulting in a more rapid rise in blood glucose levels. You can probably see why this would be important information as it relates to a diabetic dog.

Low glycemic foods include many fruits and vegetables, legumes, some whole grains, and fructose. Foods that are medium glycemic include whole wheat products, brown rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes, sugar (sucrose), and honey. High glycemic foods include white rice, white or wheat bread, and glucose.

Diabetic dogs should avoid foods that contain simple carbohydrates such as sugars (corn syrup, for example) and propylene glycol (found in semi-moist foods), since they will cause a rapid glucose spike.

Complex carbohydrates (starches) are more desirable for diabetic dogs since they are digested more slowly. The rise in the glucose level is gradual and there is no rapid spike. The processing of the raw ingredients used in dog foods, however, can affect how fast these complex carbohydrates are digested by the dog.

Carbs will be digested faster than nutrients such as proteins and fats so they have the biggest effect on the post-meal glycemic response and your dog’s insulin needs. You may need to adjust the amount of carbohydrates in your dog’s meals (depending on when the insulin effect peaks), so that the peak effect of the injected insulin will coincide with the elevation in glucose and not lead to hypoglycemia.

Diabetic dogs should normally avoid the easily digestible dog foods that are designed for dogs with sensitive stomachs. These foods are made to break down and be digested quickly so they can result in higher blood glucose levels after eating which can be problematic for a diabetic dog.

Fiber for a diabetic dog

Dietary fiber (or roughage), as you probably know, is the indigestible part of food derived from plants. Dietary fibers can act by changing the nature of the contents of the gastrointestinal tract and by changing how other nutrients and chemicals are absorbed. Fiber slows the speed with which the gastrointestinal system empties and the digestion of carbohydrates. This also slows the release of glucose into the bloodstream. In turn, this means that the dog’s blood sugar will rise more slowly after meals containing dietary fiber.

Diabetic dogs don’t necessarily need more fiber than other dogs. In most cases they will do well with moderate amounts of fiber. If your dog has poor glycemic control, he may benefit from increased fiber in his diet but some diabetic dogs are better off with less fiber in their diet. “Glycemic control” is a medical term referring to the typical levels of blood sugar (glucose) in a person (or dog) with diabetes mellitus. “Perfect glycemic control” would mean that glucose levels were always normal and indistinguishable from a dog without diabetes. A dog with poor glycemic control will have persistently elevated blood glucose and glycosylated hemoglobin levels.

There are two different kinds of fiber : soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber ferments in the colon and creates gases. Insoluble fiber does not produce gas in the intestines. It absorbs water as it moves through the digestive tract.

Soluble fibers include fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), pectins, guar gum, lactulose, and psyllium. Most soluble fiber (except psyllium) is fermentable. Beet pulp has a mix of soluble and insoluble fiber and is moderately fermentable.

Prebiotics are also soluble fibers and they are fermentable. They feed probiotics – the beneficial bacteria found in the digestive tract which plays an important role in the body’s immune system. Soluble fiber also produces beneficial short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) as it ferments.

Too much soluble fiber can cause problems, resulting in gas and diarrhea. It can speed up glucose absorption after your dog eats his meal. Gas from soluble fiber is most likely to develop when the fiber is initially introduced into the diet or when the amount is increased. You can avoid this problem by starting with a small amount of soluble fiber in  the diet and increasing it gradually.

Insoluble fiber regulates the time it takes for food to travel through the intestines. If a dog is constipated, it can speed things up; if your dog has diarrhea, it can slow things down. Examples are bran and one with which many dog owners are familiar – pumpkin. Insoluble fiber increases stool volume and is usually well-tolerated by dogs even in large amounts. It may help in controlling glucose.

However, given in large amounts, insoluble fiber can decrease the nutrient value of the dog’s diet because it can bind the minerals in the food. Diets that are high in insoluble fiber can also lead to weight loss, poor appetite, poor coat quality, vomiting, very large stools, flatulence, diarrhea, and constipation.

Diets with increased fiber are not recommended for dogs that are underweight; dogs that won’t eat because of the taste or texture of the fiber in the food; or dogs that experience some of the side effects mentioned above.

If you are feeding a dog food or adding a supplement that has increased fiber, it’s particularly important to provide plenty of fluids to your dog because the fiber draws water from the dog’s body. This can lead to constipation or other difficulties if the dog is not drinking enough water.

Managing your diabetic dog’s diet

Here’s a summary of what you need to remember in order to manage your diabetic dog’s diet:

  • The most important thing for your diabetic dog’s diet is that he likes his food and eats it willingly at each meal.
  • Most diabetic dogs do best eating two meals per day, 12 hours apart. Feed the same amount of food, with the same amount of carbs, at each meal and feed your dog at the same scheduled time each day to help control his blood glucose level.
  • There is no single best diet recommended for diabetic dogs.
  • Most diabetic dogs do not require a prescription diet. They can eat a normal adult maintenance diet unless they have a concurrent health problem that requires a special diet.
  • Most diabetic dogs do not need a high fiber diet. They can eat a diet that is moderate in fiber like other dogs.
  • You do not have to feed your diabetic dog a high protein diet but you can.
  • Diabetic dogs do not necessarily require a low fat diet. However, diets that are moderately low in fat are a good idea for some diabetic dogs because of the association between diabetes, pancreatitis, and other health issues involving fat. Strive to maintain your diabetic dog at a healthy weight.

Naturally there are other things to know about feeding your diabetic dog and managing his condition, but these points should be at the top of any dog owner’s list. It’s not easy for any dog lover to hear that their dog has diabetes but you should know that this is not a death sentence. Dogs do survive and live long lives with diabetes. You can manage this condition. We know more today about diabetes in dogs than we did a few years ago. There is more to learn but dogs are benefiting from research today.

2 comments

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  • I’ve been using Hill’s Science Diet Dry Food and Hill’s Science Diet Wet/Senior with her insulin shots twice a day and got her stabilized after finding the correct insulin dosage with my vet. Sorry for anyone going through this. It’s tough the first couple shots administered but gets easier. My vet also knows I’m not made of money so they helped me find that Walmart had insulin currently for around $35 a vile which is $120 less than other places. It’s human insulin but they gave me the correct needles and dosage. The vet was very knowledgable and started low with the insulin. God Bless

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